More about the Clay-Figurine Project

In 2014, I started the Mesoamerican Clay-Figurine Project of Rio Hondo College—a lifelong teaching, research, and community partnership project, where I approach the college classroom as an archaeological field site of un-excavated human artifacts. In this sense, every student represents a stratigraphy of wealth, ideas, and knowledge. At the core of this project, are Clay-Figurines, or small-scale, earthly representations of the human and animal body. In Ancient Mesoamerica people used them as gifts, toys, burial offerings, and healing tools.

Through self-reflective writing, storytelling, clay-work, and a host of decolonizing teaching strategies, I train students to document and materialize the meaningful events and experiences of their lives. Together, we create clay-figurines filled with an array of knowledge, and deep esoteric aspects of the self. These figurines, their narratives, and other materials created by students, quickly surface as educational artifacts, loaded with vast insights and interpretations.

One of the big questions that I have every semester is how will I best serve a remarkably diverse student group? For me its clay, it is the earth, the land that my students are familiar with. I bring boxes of clay into the classroom. I hand it to them, they sculpt it, pound it, and are amused by it. Some do nothing at all with it, but after a few touches, students become familiar with it. The clay-work leads to discussions about migration, natural resources, and belonging in the world.

Clay-work in the classroom births critical learning moments and encourages a host of teaching strategies. In my classroom the clay-work, we perform it alongside reflective writing, discussions about the human body, and talks about race, racism, and social justice.

In 2015, the Mesoamerican Clay-Figurine Project was recognized by the American Studies Association (ASA) with the Gloria E. Anzaldúa Award for Independent Scholars, Contingent, or Community College Faculty. The ASA was impressed with the clay-work, and how it led to making artifacts of knowledge among students of minority backgrounds with learning disabilities. The association found value in the research that went into the project and so they awarded me a lifetime access to the American Quarterly Journal.

Later, in 2019, the project was awarded a $40,000 grant by the American Council of Learned Societies through a Mellon/ACLS Community College Faculty Fellowship. With the grant, we were able to buy much needed classrooms supplies and textbooks. I was able to hire two student humanities researchers. Of immense value the ACLS funded the project’s publication goals and public engagement by supporting community programing.

The ACLS became interested in the teacher and student scholarship, and the humanistic knowledge birthed when clay, writing, and partnerships are focal. I responded by producing one article in the Journal of Latinos and Education, one co-authored article in Genealogy, and a second co-authored chapter published by Kendall Hunt in the book “In Search of our Brown Selves”.

Clay-Figurine Narratives

In 2014, Rio Hondo students began to materialize their own Coatlicue State through clay-work and reflective writing. This was my first pedagogical attempt to better understand the life stories and mental health challenges of students within a decolonizing teaching strategy. Here you can view pictures of the clay-work, and read many of the clay-figurine narratives written by students over the years. The stories were translated from the self-reflective writing assignment that accompanied each individual figurine. NOTE: Signed consent was given to interpret and publish various student artifacts for educational purposes.

Learning Frameworks & Models

Over the course of ten years the Mesoamerican Clay-Figurine Project has led to a handful learning frameworks and models useful when engaging students of Mesoamerican ancestry. Self-reflective writing, storytelling, and clay-work rest at the heart of these tools. When these well-established teaching strategies crisscross with the deep esoteric, and the ancestral, a host of culturally relevant and innovative learning appears. Here you may glance over the project’s most meaningful frameworks and models. The projects growing body of published articles describe these with full descriptions and context.